Alexander Varbanov is one of the greatest weightlifters of all-time, and I really mean that. His performance in the -75 kg weight class of 167.5/215/382.5 kg at the 1988 World Cup in Plovid is the 9th highest Sinclair ever of 485.78. Not only were his weightlifting abilities incredible, but so were the circumstances and situations of his athletic career.
In this part 2 of the Alexander Varbanov interview, Alexander spoke about his time with Ivan Abadjiev, the politics and deadlines of Soviet weightlifting, and his greatest moment in the sport…
What was Abadjiev like as a man/coach, and how was your relationship with him?
A genius coach! Period! Whatever people may call him – “butcher”, “cruel”, “madman” – he was the most productive coach I know. Very demanding, well prepared, intelligent and knowledgeable, he was not scared to experiment. From my almost 45 years in this sport, I haven’t heard of Abadjiev “killing” someone with his training regimen. I was in the gym with him for 12 hours a day so you can trust me.
As a man Abadjiev was modest and shy I’d say, with a very cool sense of humor. During the heaviest training sessions, he always had a way to cheer us up – either a funny saying or a wild song, some jokes were thrown at us too. He was a workaholic. I think his family suffered the most from that. At the time he was closer to me than my father. He knew more about me than my parents and sometimes even more than I knew about myself. I miss him.
Varbanov obeys the authorities order and won’t go to jail…
You competed in Varna in 1984, arguably the greatest competition of all time. What are your memories of this competition? Did you all know that this was the pinnacle of weightlifting?
We were all extremely well prepared in 1984. The Bulgarian team was at a training camp in Sport Palace (where I hold my summer training camps) when we received the news that all the countries from the communistic block except Romania would boycott the Olympics in LA. The authorities decided to host their own “Socialistics.” What an idiocy! Can you imagine – all the hard work, blood and sweat, one Olympic cycle, four years from your life – down the drain?!
I have a personal story about the 1984 socialist Olympiad I don’t think I’ve shared in an interview so far. I was 20-year old, in my top form, prepared to take down the world records in the 75 class. Yanko Rusev was also preparing, but in the lighter 67.5 class. So, one day Yanko decides to retire. He comes to me, gives me his belt and says: “I’m done. Now is your time.” Only a week after this conversation, Rusev’s back in the gym and asks for his belt back and resumes training. As I figured later on, it was all arranged between the coaching staff and the Bulgarian political establishment. Yanko had to finish his career as the undefeated and almighty champion. But there was simply no way he was going to beat me. I was younger and stronger, ahead of him by 40 kg in the training total.
It wasn’t the training system that “killed” athletes. It was all the politics in the sport at national and international level
Two weeks before the competition I was forced to cut down to 67.5 kg to secure a medal in the category. Surprisingly, Joahim Kunz didn’t do well at this competition, Rusev finished with 190kg in the Clean and Jerk, and I still had to make, that is –to fail – my third attempt (195 kg asked). So I did – I fix the bar over head and put it down before the buzzer, just as ordered by the coaching staff. Rusev, the Politbureau protégé, finishes his career as a winner; Varbanov obeys the authorities order and won’t go to jail…
Then my personal coach decides that we have to show them who the real winner is and asks for the fourth attempt (at the time it was allowed). I was prepared to Clean and Jerk 202.5kg which would have been 3 times my bodyweight. At this time, the Bulgarian minister of sport furious, jumps from his seat, comes to my coach, and starts yelling: “What is this circus for? The competition is over! Why is Varbanov going for a world record?” Well, it was too late, I was on the platform and did 200kg.
It wasn’t the training system that “killed” athletes. It was all the politics in the sport at national and international level. The next Olympics (1988) proved it. As far as my eyes can see, nothing has changed at all.
What is your proudest/greatest moment as an athlete?
My first World Title in 1983. I, the inexperienced junior, defeated the undefeatable, the strongest competitor I have faced, Vladimir Kuznetsov. A month before the competition he gave an interview claiming how he was going to grab his gold medal in his home nation USSR. Well, it didn’t turn out exactly as he planned it. I totalled 370 kg.
Can you take us through your best numbers in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk as a teenager (13,15,18…etc.)?
1977 I started off with 30kg Snatch and 50kg Clean and Jerk at hardly 30kg body weight. One year later (1978) at my first Nationals I did 55 / 75 kg at 40-ish kg bodyweight. I remember I wanted to lift with my back to the audience – I was shy, scared, no confidence at all. In 1979 (15) qualified for the Junior National Team with 90kg Snatch and 110kg Clean and Jerk at 52kg. 1982 (18): Snatch 150kg and Clean and Jerk 190kg both being World Junior Records at 67.5kg bodyweight. 1983 (19): Snatch 160kg and Clean and Jerk 210kg at 75kg bodyweight.
1977 I started off with 30kg Snatch and 50kg Clean and Jerk… 1983 (AGE 19): Snatch 160kg and Clean and Jerk 210kg at 75kg bodyweight.
Who are your favourite modern-day athletes and why?
Lasha Talakhadze. He lifts with ease and moves extremely fast for a heavyweight athlete. He is very fun to watch. I actually watch Lasha’s competitions with my son Nikolay and we make bets on the numbers that Lasha would hit. Of course, Niki often wins because he is like an encyclopedia for modern day weightlifters.
Part 1) Alexander Varbanov Interview – Biggest Training Lifts of the Bulgarian Team